Join us for a lively overview of the recently published book “Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy”, by acclaimed author Mel Konner in discussion with Mayree Clark, a successful financial leader and veteran of Wall Street who currently serves on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Standford University. In Women After All, Konner traces the arc of evolution to explain the relationships between women and men, and explores the controversial question of whether men are necessary in the biological destiny of the human race. As our society evolves to become more gender equal, Konner believes that It will not be the end of men, but it will be the end of male supremacy and a better, wiser world for women and men alike.
We weren’t able to answer all of the questions asked by our audience during the webinar, so Mel and Mayree have kindly replied to them below.
Slides are available to view [here]
Melvin Konner teaches anthropology and behavioral biology at Emory University. He received an MD and Ph.D. from Harvard. Konner has authored eleven books, including The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, Why the Reckless Survive, and Other Secrets of Human Nature. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has written for many publications including Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek.
Mayree Clark has a keen interest in the topic of evolution. In her professional career she founded Eachwin Capital, an investment management firm focused on the public equity markets. Previously she was affiliated with Morgan Stanley for 24 years. Mayree is currently a Director of Ally Financial Services and the Tricycle Foundation, and a member of the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Research on Gender at Stanford University.
Additional webinar questions:
Mel says: Thanks to all of you for these stimulating and wise questions, and also the questions we took up during the webinar itself. Your questions have given me a chance to clarify my thinking in ways that I couldn’t have done during that one hour. I have a small addition pertaining to our discussion during the hour about hormonal influences and fluctuations (both cyclical and non-cyclical) in men and women. I claimed that we should worry more about men’s hormones than women’s because of their influence on violence and sexuality. I did not mention that testosterone interferes with men’s performance on mathematical and other cognitive tasks, including judgment and decisions in economic games about stock market investing. Some of these studies are nicely summarized in a brief article in The New York Times of June 25, 2017, “Men Are So Hormonal,” by Therese Huston, on p. 3 of the Sunday Review.
Marion asks: Can the multi-level selection theory explain the end of male supremacy?
Mel: Subtle and important question. It could if you think of cultural success as a kind of group selection. Western culture is now in the vanguard of the trend, and it is “beating” other cultures in a sense, not by spreading genes by spreading ideas and cultural practices. I prefer to see it as a case of gene-culture coevolution. That is, the “meme” of women’s rights (and other memes associated with it, like birth control and educations for girls) is spreading very fast, and the genes and memes associated with male supremacy (which have reinforced each other for perhaps 14,000 years) are now being swamped. In the long run, genes will evolve under the influence of new cultural and social structures as more cooperative men (and their genes) are chosen by increasingly independent women as mating partners.
Juanita asks: What is your antidote for the threat male violence, aggression towards women?
Mel: The antidote is emerging in the form of women’s empowerment. The more educated women are, the less likely they are to be abused, and women’s growing economic independence and control of their own reproductive processes are big nails in the coffin of illegitimate male power. I’m all for boys being raised to respect women, and that will help, but there are hard core cases of male aggression. These men have to be punished, which they too often are not, but laws and their enforcement are getting better. Meanwhile, girls have to be raised to have zero tolerance for these men and empowered to implement that policy. In some cultures, matrilineal households can raise children and protect them and their mothers and grandmothers can do this without potentially exploitative men. More children today are being raised by single mothers and we need stronger supports for them, as most European countries have.
David asks: Besides their capability to dominate, are their clues to why (most) men would want to dominate?
Mel: To start with a crass evolutionary answer, men need to access wombs to reproduce, and in every culture, they have tried not only to access them but control them. Being unable to create life in our bodies, men need access to women’s bodies and have been selected to go to great lengths to get it. Some men use force, money, and power rather than courtship to get sex, which in the past could not be separated from reproduction. In many cultures, men also go to great lengths to control the disposition of their daughters’ and even sisters’ wombs. Cultures coevolve with genes to reinforce male dominance. I am hopeful (and fairly confident) that these trends are now being reversed as women gain independence and control over their own wombs. Part of my confidence comes from the knowledge that hunter-gatherers (which we were for most of our history, and which is our baseline) are more egalitarian than we have been since the end of the hunting-gathering era until the past two centuries. I know it’s hard for most people to see something that lasted for thousands of years as temporary, but that’s how I see it.
John asks: Mel, this is John Barr from Houston. Have there been any challenges to your book that have caused you to rethink hour main arguments?
Mel: Hi John, very interesting question. It may sound self-serving, but most of what I’ve learned since I put the book to bed three years ago has reinforced my main ideas. Like most liberals, I did not expect a man like Donald Trump, with his history of disrespect for women and support for government control of women’s bodies, to defeat the first woman who was a serious candidate for President. Yet although I was very disappointed I was not stunned. I expected and predicted setbacks, but as long as it’s two steps forward, one step back, it’s still progress. You are the expert in American history, but it seems to me we have had major setbacks before and gone on to right ourselves. Plus, we have some women in power. At the time, Nixon was elected with his “all the President’s men” coterie, there were I think no women senators, while the same election that defeated a woman added a woman Senator, so there are now 21, including for minority group women and one lesbian. There were no equivalents of Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, Janet Yellen, and Theresa May on the wider stage.
On a different topic, I am increasingly worried about boys and may write a book about them. I mentioned this concern in passing in Women After All, and it may seem that I am jumping the gun, but as we increasingly become an egalitarian and even perhaps a woman’s world, boys and men will be struggling to adapt and find new roles when their old, conventional, historic ones are outmoded in some ways. If we don’t, more backlashes will be inevitable. You might say that this is something I have learned to be more worried about since I wrote the book—although we still have a very long way to go in the fight for women’s rights.
Bob asks: When you use the term ‘male supremacy’ is this equivalent to the term often used of ‘patriarchy’? How would you define the term if different?
Mel: I don’t think they’re terribly different. Patriarchy seems a bit old-fashioned to me, with specific connotations of a Victorian or Prussian pater who rules an orderly family and household with an iron rod and no questions asked. I used “male supremacy” because it seems more general to me. If I can be blunt, it’s hard for me to think of a rapist, a pimp, or a workplace harasser of women as a patriarch, but easy for me to fit them into my general picture of male supremacy, which includes many forms of violence, dominance, threat, exploitation, and control. There was a book many years ago called The Inevitability of Patriarchy, which had a lot of bad biology and anthropology in it. You could say my book is a sort of antidote to that one, but I acknowledge the same tendencies in men that made patriarchy seem inevitable to that author. The difference is twofold: 1) I see the baseline (hunter-gatherer gender relations) differently. If hunter-gatherers are not and probably were not patriarchal (or male supremacist)—the cartoons of a cave-man with a club dragging a woman by the hair are pure myth or comedy—and patriarchy/male supremacy arose mainly after the end of the hunting-gathering era, then they are a temporary divergence from the human baseline and therefore not inevitable; 2) cultural evolution is much more rapid than genetic evolution and can swamp it, transcending inevitability—as we are seeing with cultural evolution in labor-saving (and muscle-replacing) technology, contraception, and communications technology letting oppressed women around the world see the lives of freer women.
Paula asks: I’d like to have Mayree’s written response to the question (Mel was able to answer it at the very end): Do you imagine the end of “male dominance” will also end human dominance hierarchies? If so – or not – are you aware of the anatomy of female dominance hierarchies and just how violent and brutal they can also be?
Mayree: Paula, I do not imagine that an end in male dominance would end human dominance hierarchies. I think one interesting question is what will determine “dominance” over time. The literal definition of dominance is “power and influence over others” (at least according to google). In my experience, groups and organizations do not function well without leaders, and I don’t expect that to change over time. Leaders must have influence at a minimum, and typically have power as well.
But in an evolved world we might ask: how is that power an influence derived? Is it through a legitimate political process for example? Or might the powerful and influential possess traits which are highly valued such as fairness, compassion and/or attentiveness to the needs of the community? Could the emergence of the dominance of those traits coincide with the emergence of women? I don’t know but I think it’s consistent with Mel’s thesis and…worth hoping for!
I am far less familiar with the anatomy of female dominance hierarchies. It would not surprise me to learn that they can be violent and brutal. Certainly, many women I have known or known of are every bit as vicious as the most vicious men I have encountered.
Mel: Paula, I hope you won’t mind if I also expand a little on my brief verbal answer during the webinar. I have three daughters (now grown) and two were victims of “mean girls syndrome,” one seriously harmed by it in middle school. Today the internet has intensified such bullying and a growing number of suicides have occurred in children victimized by other children, including girls victimized by girls. My wife (psychologist Ann Cale Kruger of Georgia State University) does research on middle school girls in dangerous urban areas and they say they have to be ready for physical fights with other girls at any time. So I am not naïve about this. A great book on this subject is Sarah Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved, which came out decades ago and changed my thinking (as clearly explained on pp. 98-100 of Women After All). Hrdy showed that all primates have significant female-female aggression and female dominance hierarchies. But she agrees with me that there is a huge difference between males and females on these dimensions (especially where physical violence is concerned), in almost all primate species including humans. So the difference I see is one of degree, but it’s a big one. And no, I don’t imagine an end to dominance hierarchies, ever. I just imagine women getting a fairer place in them. And when they do, I expect them to make hierarchies a bit more humane, but certainly not eliminate them.